Britain’s ‘Little Ice Age’

It’s hardly surprising in the UK that we are notorious for talking about the weather, for it is nothing if not unpredictable. Take the last 2 weeks – where I live in the south of Scotland we have had temperatures ranging from -5 at lunchtime to +11 at eleven pm at night. Which makes the decision of when to change to winter tyres rather difficult, and which is perhaps the reason that the weather is not just the subject of casual conversation, but also of jokes and of picture postcards – I’m sure you’ve all seen the ‘Summer in the… (fill in your own county name) cards – which is of course just a picture of rain…

Recently though ‘weather’ or rather ‘climate’ (for I’ve been reliably informed by those who know that they are two different things) has become a worldwide topic of hot debate, with Greta Thunberg named yesterday as the Times Magazine person of 2019. Programmes abound of ice melting in the Artic and Antarctic and the potentially catastrophic effects that will follow for us all if it cannot be halted.

But melting ice hasn’t always been a problem – quite the reverse. For over 100 years within the late Tudor, Stuart and Georgian periods Britain was in the grip of what became known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ when winters were harsh and long. There is ample evidence, in writing and in pictures, of frost fairs on the Thames – carnivals on ice, the most famous occurring in the winter of 1683 / 84, when even the seas around southern Britain are said to have frozen for up to 2 miles from shore!

There were temporary booths selling everything from beer to bootlaces, hot food in abundance, entertainments of all kinds and sporting events – bowling matches and horse and coach races, (though quite how the horses managed on the ice I don’t know). Every trade and guild was represented – the city in miniature reproduced on the ice.

The frost fairs spawned souvenirs, which to judge by the advertising copy below, would likely have rivalled the seaside ‘tat’ of our modern era.

‘Here you PRINT your name tho’ cannot write
Cause numbe’d with cold: Tis done with great delight.

And lay it by: That AGES yet to come
May see what THINGS upon the ICE were done.’

‘To the Print-house go,
Where men the art of Printing soon do know,
Where for a Teaster, you may have your name
Printed, hereafter for to show the same’

It is the Thames Frost Fairs that have had all the press, but the ‘Ice Age’ wasn’t confined to the south of England, but to most of the Northern Hemisphere and so in my first Scottish novel I have set a Frost Fair on the Clyde – and what should have been a happy occasion for the Munro family, didn’t go entirely to plan – courtesy of William Cunninghame.

Here’s a wee extract from Turn of the Tide:

December came in hard, heralding a season of frosts that silvered the loch with ice a foot thick, so that Munro fashioned wooden skates for all but Ellie, the blacksmith fitting them with narrow blades. In January, when it was clear that the cold snap would last, frost fairs were held along the upper reaches of the Clyde and it took little persuasion for Munro to fit runners to the cart and take Kate and the two older children.

It was Maggie’s first experience of a winter fair and she hopped up and down on the shore, impatient for Munro to lace her skates. Kate and Munro each took one of her hands and they struck out towards the braziers burning on the ice and bought chestnuts so hot that even with mittens, they had to toss them from hand to hand until they cooled enough to eat. A flesher had set up a spit and was roasting a pig, the fat sparking like a scattering of bawbees. Maggie wrinkled her nose at the smell of mulled wine and roast meat and burning tallow, and wheedled three pennies from Munro to have her name and the date scribed on a card with a drawing of the fair.

Robbie came flying to drag them to see a man who played a whistle and had a monkey who danced and gibbered on the end of a rope. There were tents with ‘fat ladies’ and fortune-tellers and stalls selling simples: aloes, camphor and ginger, punguent salves of egg-white, rose oil and turpentine. One stall-holder brandished a pamphlet hailing tobacco as the cure-all for everything from toothache and bad breath to kidney stones and carbuncles.

Kate dragged Munro away. ‘Don’t even think on it. I have no wish to kiss a chimney, supposing it could do all that is claimed.’

There were entertainers of all kinds: tumblers in rainbow colours, spinning and wheeling like human kaleidoscopes. Jugglers spinning plates on the ends of long poles balanced on their chins. Musicians who scraped and beat and blew, so fine and so fast that those who hadn’t skates hopped and jigged on the ice around them. Best of all, a conjuror: his silver hair corkscrewed around his face, who began his act by plucking a groat from behind Maggie’s ear.

She was entranced: tipped forward onto the toe of her skates, leaning into Kate that she might not lose her balance; as he spun cards into spirals of kings and queens, aces and jokers, hearts and spades and clubs. He made coins appear and disappear from his hands, under pewter tankards, into a tiny, brightly coloured wooden box with a sliding lid. A dove placed in a tall-crowned hat was gone in a puff of smoke, replaced by a multi-coloured streamer yards long. And best of all: the rabbit that hopped from his sleeve. The act was finished, the conjuror bowing and smiling, Munro fishing for a penny for Maggie to drop in the bonnet he shook.

A slow, contemptuous clapping; a voice impossible to mistake. ‘Well, well. Munro . . . and family. This is an unlooked for surprise. Enjoying yourselves? I daresay this is cheap enough entertainment, even for you.’ William’s eyes raked over Kate, lingering on her breast and she tensed, but tilted her chin and returned his stare.

Beside her Munro smouldered, ‘You’re a step from Kilmaurs. Are you likewise straightened, or is it that Glencairn does not countenance the aggravation closer to home?’

‘I play where I choose and tonight I chose here, and might have been the sooner had I anticipated so pleasant company.’

A gust of wind lifted Kate’s hair, whipped her skirt around her legs, and against her will she shivered.

William leaned close. ‘But come, Munro, you do not treat your wife well. A pretty piece deserves to be kept warm . . . I have a horse-blanket that would serve.’

She was rigid with defiance, determined not to rise to his goading. ‘Thank you but no. I am not truly cold, and if I was I have a shawl in the cart I could put to use.’

‘Some mulled wine then? You will not refuse to drink with me?’

‘We would not, but that we have already had our fill and the bairns hope to see the conjuror’s next act.’

‘This fellow? He is scarcely proficient, or not to a discerning audience at least.’

Maggie, who had followed the sense of William’s comment, though not all the words, shot out a foot and caught him on the shin with the blade of her skate. ‘He is clever and magic and . . .’

Kate caught her round the waist, pulled her back, and though she would have dearly liked to kick William herself, reproved her. ‘Maggie! It is not well done. Apologize this instant.’

‘Shan’t.’ Maggie escaped from Kate’s grasp, her eyes fixed on William, hard and bright.

‘Already feisty . . . like mother, like daughter.’ William was rubbing at his leg. Have no fear Kate, I take no account of a child’s pettiness, how ever ill-bred. When she is grown, I shall take an apology then, no doubt the sweeter for the wait.’

Munro thrust Maggie behind him to turn on William, but Kate had beaten him to it, her hand whipping out, the crack as it met his cheek, echoing like a pistol shot. Off-balance he staggered and then Robbie was hammering at him with his fists, Maggie, who had ducked round Munro, kicking furiously at his shins. A small crowd was gathering, the conjuror, with an eye to further profit, offering odds on the bairns. Kate dived for Maggie, Munro for Robbie. William straightened, and then as if suddenly aware of the folk who gawked, that they made of him a laughing stock, ground out, ‘Ill-mannered as well as ill-bred. You would do well Munro to train your children better, or you may live to regret it.’ He spun on his heel and thrust his way through the crowd, daring any to stop him.

The silence lasted only as long as it took for the conjuror to re-start his show for the new audience that the confrontation had drawn. Maggie, no longer fighting Kate, was craning to see, but Munro, recognizing the wisdom of putting as much ground between themselves and William as possible, said, his voice brooking no resistance, ‘Home.’

They found their way to the cart in silence, the children unusually subdued, Munro and Kate, though both occupied with this new danger, neither wishing to air it. On the hill they stopped and turned to take a last look. Maggie, pointing to the moon riding high and full in the sky, whispered,

‘There is a man. I see his face.’

The lights of the lanterns twinkled all along the shore, the flames from the braziers flaring spasmodically, figures like dolls still skating on the ice.

Kate leant back against Munro, risked, ‘If it were not for William, I could have stayed all night.’‘If it were not for William . . .’ it hung between them, the thought of Anna: of what they had lost; the fear for what they still had.

If you have enjoyed this extract the remainder of the story and the two novels that follow it can be found on Amazon on kindle and both online and via UK bookshops in paperbacks (ideal Christmas presents?) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Margaret-Skea/e/B009B9HCUC/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1

This is part of a series of seasonal blogs – all of which can be enjoyed this month – the dates are below – do visit them all!

Paperback launches…

I’m looking forward to the paperback launches of By Sword and Storm – the first is at Mainstreet Trading Book shop in St Boswells – a shop that has previously won Independent Bookshop of the Year, yet is situated in a wee village near to me. It is chock full of books and runs loads of events. My launch is classed as a private party – but they set it up, in their events space – the upper part of the barn labelled ‘HOME’ on the drawing – provide table / cloths and glasses for the nibbles and drinks, a stage etc with microphone and lots of chairs and also sell the books. My ambition is to get a launch officially up on their blackboard of events one day… Mainstreet Trading MapI’m very grateful for their willingness to host and to display  invites at their till for folk to pick up. Here’s the current invite. Mainstreet Invite Oct 3rd 2018 By S+SAnd I’m also grateful to historian John Wood, who will host the event – this will be the third he has hosted for me and he still remains willing!

On the 4th October I’ll be doing it all again at Blackwells Bookshop in Edinburgh – for those for whom getting to the Borders is a step too far…  Blackwells Edinburgh

They have a lovely event space upstairs and generously allow me into their staff kitchen to prepare the nibbles. I’m sad that this will be the last time that Ann Landmann will be on hand to make sure it all goes right, as she has moved to the publisher Birlinn, but very pleased that she is coming back for this launch.   David Bishop (Head of the Creative Writing MA at Napier University) has kindly agreed to host the launch – he’s reading the book just now – here’s hoping he’s enjoying it!

For anyone reading this who is within shooting distance of Edinburgh, the event is FREE but ticketed via  Eventbrite (for the sake of the bookshop re numbers to expect).

I would love to see anyone who is free to come to either of these events – the more the merrier. (It would be helpful to me for catering to have an idea of numbers also, so do please feel free to message me here or on Fb or text.)

And if you can’t come and / or are an ebook fan please note that the ebook (published by Corazon) has a different cover – a ship instead of a sword – you can find it on  Amazon  

And Monday morning I hope to get my head down on Katharina: Fortitude – the follow-up to  Katharina: Deliverance – which has just finished runner-up in the Historical Novel Society New Novel Award 2018 – I’m very pleased.

Munro meets the Poldarks.

Now here’s a thing – every writer has authors who have inspired them, whose work they admire and whom they would like to be compared to.

For me, one of those authors is Winston Graham, and in particular, the Poldark novels, especially the earlier ones.  (Another is Daphne du Maurier, but that’s another story, for another day.)

In fact, before I began to write my first Scottish novel, I dissected Graham’s first – Ross Poldark, analysing it in terms of, for example, structure, the interweaving of plotlines, the balance between dialogue, narration and description, and the methods used to convey the period.  In Turn of the Tide I didn’t set out to mimic Ross Poldark, but rather to apply the principles that I’d drawn from it.

So, in a sense, I’ve always though of Graham as a mentor. Which is why I was delighted when by chance I looked on Amazon one day and found Turn of the Tide sitting just below Demelza in the Amazon rankings. And thus began a wee contest with myself (some might say obsession!) – to try to collect screenshots with all of the Poldark novels.

And here they are – it took several weeks and countless quick forays into the Amazon lists, on both the UK site and the Australian one, but finally I got them all. They aren’t in the order I collected them, but in the order of the Poldark books.

Turn of the Tide + Ross Poldark 3 UKTurn of the Tide + Demelza Aug 2017 UKTOT and Jeremy Poldark Aug 2107

I wanted to ‘capture’ the books in pairs, but in the case of Warleggan that wasn’t possible and I had to settle in the end for a group of four. (I’m sure someone really technical could have cut out a diagonal, or blanked out the others, but that isn’t me – sadly.)

 

And as you can see I haven’t mastered the art of equalising the size of images either, but hey – I have them all – and that (ridiculous as it may seem) gives me a wee frisson of pleasure. It was interesting to see the different covers that had been produced over the recent past, my favourites are definitely the ones with some kind of paper in the background and a central image. And the idea of a distinct branding for a series is one I shall remember. I’m not sure about the image of Ross in the bottom corner, though. (Sorry Aidan Turner!)

 

Turn of the Tide + Four Swans Aug 2017 UKToT (#21) + Angry Tide Aug 20 AUTot + The stranger From the Sea Aug 2017Some of the titles I could have ‘captured’ multiple times, others remained elusive. The final one – which happened to be The Miller’s Dance – was frustratingly tricky – for days, as it went up, Turn of the Tide went down, and vice versa and as the maximum distance between them allowing me to capture a screen shot was one row either way, there couldn’t be more than 4 places between them. However, I got it in the end and as you can see from the numbers, came very close to not getting it at all.

Tot + Miller's Dance AU 11:09:17Each time I look at them it reminds of the way an individual story (or stories) take centre stage in the different books, but there remains a cohesion that runs through them all.Turn of the Tide + The Loving Cup (2) (UK) Aug 2017Interesting, too, for me, to see how the series develops, particularly over the lengthy time span and the move from a focus on Ross and Demelza themselves, to their children. And as a result how it is Demelza who increasingly becomes the more important character in the marriage partnership, through her empathy and greater understanding of their struggles.
Tot and Twisted Sword Aug 2017
Tot + Bella Poldark BB (AU)2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

As an example of how to develop a saga it continues to impress me and I couldn’t help be encouraged when someone likened the Munro saga to a Scottish Poldark – that can’t be bad. Though whether I could sustain their story for 12 books I’m not sure. Time will tell…

A first for me – a feature in a German newspaper

Torgau paperYesterday a link dropped onto my FB author page which, once I’d realised it was a link (several hours and someone’s comment later) took me straight to an article in a German newspaper, featuring the research visit I’d made to Torgau in Saxony just over a year ago. I was travelling in the footsteps of Katharina von Bora, the escaped nun who became Martin Luther’s wife, in order to paint an authentic background to my novel Katharina: Deliverance. Although I can’t read German, and have to rely on the less than idiomatic FB translation, it seems a lovely article and I’m chuffed to bits.

Yesterday I also discovered, in the spam folder of my email, that Torgau Information Centre had written to me two weeks ago, wanting a photograph to go with the article, but  by the time I found it the piece was written and published. Moral of the story – check your spam folder more than once a month! I am hoping that they might be able to send me a scanned copy of the article that I can print out and keep – to join my wee archive of newspaper coverage that I’ve had over the last few years. For those of you who can read German here’s the link

For those who can’t,  google translate gives the gist!

So my thanks to Anja, Ursula and Katrin of Torgau Tourist Information Centre and to Sebastian who wrote the article.

 

Editing – Day 1.

Editing of Turn of the Tide was a lengthy and rather ad hoc process. Having finished a first draft of its sequel yesterday I’m excited about starting on the editing process, which this time I’ve planned.

So today my plan was to skim through the entire manuscript – at just over 130,000 words a fairly big task – noting every place where I typed in red, indicating that there was something I wanted to check. I was so chuffed to manage that and now have a list to start working on and as I LOVE research tomorrow should be FUN.

Red Letter Day!

Yesterday I finished a first draft of the sequel to Turn of the Tide So today is a red letter day – when I begin the editing process. And I’m quite excited…

I’m also terrified that a re-read will throw up so much that needs to be altered that it’ll take another 2 1/2 years to do it!!

But actually I’m hoping that having learnt from the process with Book 1 that I’ll find the editing much quicker this time. (Hoping…)

I’m already setting down the various edits I want to do – I prefer to focus on particular aspects rather than attempt a cover-all edit. Some of which are: Story arc / balance between action and pause for breath / character development and of course grammar, punctuation and so on – NOT my forte – I tend to sprinkle commas like sugar.

And I do have one major problem – I don’t yet have a title…

Next step is to write that dreaded synopsis, perhaps a title will emerge from that process.

Where’s My Plaid? – Lovely new review for Turn of the Tide

Sometimes you get one of those reviews that really lifts your spirits and you know that what you’ve written has given a lot of enjoyment to a reader – this was one of those reviews.

4.0 out of 5 stars Where’s My Plaid!, March 9, 2015

By The Just-About-Average Ms. M (North Florida) – See all my reviews
This review is from: Turn of the Tide (Kindle Edition)

‘ The plot moves at a good, steady clip for those readers who prefer to be jostled along, but it also pauses from time to time to allow the setting to take a bow, or the weather, or the sometimes haunted—and haunting—ruminations of Munro, his wife, and a number of other characters. The slower parts are well-crafted, the descriptions those of someone who has been there, seen it all, and doubtless has several tee shirts to prove it. When the action escalates, which it often does, take a deep breath because you will feel the rush. Once you sort out who is who, and feel pretty certain you know not only how this story will progress but also how it will end, prepare to be embarrassed. Prepare to be amazed, rather, because you won’t see it coming.’

The full review can be seen here.

When History came to Life – Scotland’s History Festival 2014

After many years as the ‘Cinderella’ subject, history has been making a comeback. Authors of historical fiction are beating all comers in the big prize stakes, our TV schedules are full of (less than accurate) dramatizations such as The TudorsScreenshot 2015-02-05 09.05.46 and Reign, and currently the excellent adaptation of Wolf HallScreenshot 2015-02-05 09.07.09 and accessible documentary-style histories abound – who wouldn’t immediately recognize Neil Oliver’s flowing locks? Interest in history is alive and well and perhaps never more so than in 2014 when we remembered the start of The Great War.

There are now at least six festivals devoted to history in the UK, and they bear little relation to the dull history lessons I remember from my school days. From History Live at Kelmarsh Hall – an all-round ‘experience’ including the sights, sounds and smells in the living history encampments and re-enactments; to Harrogate’s History Festival, focusing on writing and writers. North of the border November is History Month, with PreviouslyScreenshot 2015-02-08 11.22.11 – Scotland’s History Festival delivering 140 events over 18 days in six towns – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, Dunfermline, Moffat and St Andrews. I was proud to be part of the programme.

As the introduction to the 2014 programme said: ‘History can shake the entire world – or just yours. It’s the story of nations, the clash of armies…and the scar on your knee where your brother pushed you on the rocks when you were seven. History hasn’t finished, and neither have we.’

That comprehensive view of history was reflected in the variety of events which were on offer, from workshops and walks, to tours and talks, from exhibitions and discussions, to music, art and theatre. It’s impossible to cover them all, but to give you a flavour…

Walking tours included Edinburgh’s atmospheric, underground Vaults;Screenshot 2015-02-08 11.27.48 the Secrets of the Royal Mile explored the closes, wynds and Screenshot 2015-02-08 11.31.07courtyards of Old Edinburgh; and the Dean Cemetery Screenshot 2015-02-08 11.29.08explored the host of fascinating characters interred there.

Historical novelists Andrew Williams, William Ryan and Edward Wilson discussed the shadow world of spies and secret policemen from WW1 to Vietnam; Shona Maclean, Marie Macpherson and Louise Turner talked about riot, murder and reformation; and Register House unveiled the story of the Kaiser’s Spy and the landlady who help the authorities to snare him.

Politics in Rhyme was much more entertaining than the real thing; and Stirling Castle hosted the FlytingScreenshot 2015-02-08 11.46.12
a verbal war between two of James IV’s makars, described as ‘a brilliant, beautiful and bawdy battle of verse and verb, originally written to please a king’.

There were four days of events celebrating the life, work and travels of Robert Louis Stevenson,Screenshot 2015-02-08 11.35.21 this quote is definitely one to live by, and a series focusing on significant women- in war: Weapons and Wounding; in education: Watt Wonderful Women – a talk on Heriot Watt University’s trailblazers; in trade: Women in 17th Century Fife Trade; and in drama: Miss Julie, Strindberg’s classic play.

As you might have expected in this centenary year, war was well represented; Leaving it all– Scottish soldiers’ wills and appeals against military service in WW1 a refreshingly different angle.

Food and drink weren’t forgotten: from The History of Gin and Distilling to Fireside Feast a three course banquet served in Riddle’s Court, in Edinburgh’s Old Town, similar to one that was served in 1598. (One I was sorry to miss.)

A host of events focused on family history: Getting Started with Family History Research, and the more unusual Hospital Records for Family Historians.

If your taste was for the creepy there was the Dark Truth Tour, Screenshot 2015-02-08 11.37.57or Ghosts and Ghouls.

Glasgow focused on the Irish connection; Dunfermline, on Andrew Carnegie; and St Andrews hosted a variety events in honour of St Andrew’s Day.

For children there was The Reluctant Time Traveller with Janis McKay (21st) and a varied schools programme; and two events for writers: Writing Your Story, Writing History with David Simons and Chris Dolan; and my workshop event: Screenshot 2015-02-08 11.40.17
History in Historical Fiction – Icing the Cake or Main Ingredient. I had the opportunity to present it twice – once in Edinburgh and once in St Andrews, the latter a particular pleasure for me returning to the old haunts where I’d spent my student days. And amazingly, one of the participants had gone to the same school as I had in Ulster, though not at the same time. I thoroughly enjoyed both events – I hope the folk attending did too! The feedback was good, so I guess they did.

All in all an exciting 18 days – I’m already mulling over options for a workshop or talk that I could present this year…roll on November!

Escape to the Country – then and now…

I have to confess to a mild (my husband would say serious) and long-standing addiction to house programmes on the TV – buying houses, selling houses, renovating houses…even cleaning houses. If a programme has a house as its focus, I’m your man. (Woman actually, but let’s not quibble.)
And with apologies to non-UK readers – a little nostalgia here – Who remembers the excesses of ‘Changing Rooms’ or the fun of watching wannabee property developers making mistakes on Sarah Beeny’s ‘Property Ladder’?

For the record I once applied to be on Property Ladder, and got as far as being invited to send in photos / details of the renovation project, but to my husband’s great relief a similar project had just been accepted and so I was turned down. It didn’t dampen my enthusiasm though and my ‘house’ addiction is now fed by watching as many airings of ‘Grand Designs’ as possible (mostly re-runs) and, my latest ‘fix’, episodes of ‘Escape to the Country.’Screenshot 2015-02-03 15.06.28

For the latter I blame a friend, Helen Hollick, for although I tell myself that they are very educational, and my knowledge of the geography of the south of England is certainly improving, it was Helen’s appearance on the show I was originally watching for, but of course I’m now hooked – on the landscape and the many and varied houses…

Having now watched oodles of episodes there is a recurring thread that runs through most of the programmes. – Most folk looking to relocate seem to want a property with ‘period features’.Screenshot 2015-02-03 15.06.40 But not too authentic – for, along with the desire for the period feel, is usually an equally strong preference for every modern convenience. And who can blame them? A medieval hall house may sound romantic, but how many of us would want to live with a central fire and no chimney to take away the smoke? Or an outside earth closet in lieu of a toilet? Not me!

Interesting though to see how medieval house-styling is still echoed in new-build England Screenshot 2015-02-03 15.06.53today. Compare developments of ‘mock-Tudor’ housing with the originals and externally, at least, the derivation is clear.

If you dislike ‘mock’ anything, and you have plenty of money to spend, it is possible to re-create the real thing Screenshot 2015-02-03 15.07.04 – there are specialist firms who will supply and erect an oak frame, using very similar techniques to those used in Tudor times.

The current trend for open plan living certainly lends itself to that style of house.

I have to admit here to a closet desire to live in an oak-framed house, a dream I’m unlikely to fulfil, for though these houses, both the original properties and the modern re-creations, are undoubtedly beautiful, they would look entirely out of place where I stay in the Scottish Borders.

Why most people would feel that way is an interesting issue – for modern architecture is much less location specific. Perhaps it is an instinctive appreciation that style of housing is part of our historical landscape, and often in earlier times directly reflected the physical environment; for example, the honey-coloured Cotswold stone, the flint houses of Essex with their pristine granite polishing and the thatched cottages of Devon – all of which owe their predominance to the convenience and local availability of the materials concerned, in a way that 21st century building doesn’t. And therein lies their charm.

Why isn’t the Scottish Borders peppered with half-timbered houses? Screenshot 2015-02-03 15.07.13 It can’t be explained by a lack of materials, for Scotland was just as heavily wooded in the 15th and 16th centuries as England, perhaps more so. The answer lies not in the landscape but in lifestyle.

While a Kentish farmer was enjoying the relative comfort of nestling securely in the surrounding farmland, his Scottish social equivalent was keeping fit on the spiral staircase of his gaunt and forbidding tower house, built primarily with defense in mind.Screenshot 2015-02-03 15.07.25
A reflection of the widespread lawlessness of Scottish society at this time. So no timber-framed ‘hall-style’ house for me then.

If you think renovation or stone restoration is a modern concept think again. The island of Bute on the west coast of Scotland boasts one of the most amazing restoration projects I have ever seen. Mount Stuart House was transformed before: and after: Screenshot 2015-02-03 15.08.02

Screenshot 2015-02-03 15.08.14

Well worth a visit, with ‘wow’ factors galore, from the overall magnificence (decadence?) of the interior to the detail of the decorated brass door hinges (not to mention the oak internal doors – Ukoakdoors now making similar ones), individually designed according to the purpose of the room in which they are used!

Screenshot 2015-02-03 15.08.23 Screenshot 2015-02-03 15.08.34

But now, as then, if you have enough money you can build almost anything, anywhere.
Right?
Well, maybe.

Apart from the restrictions placed by the planning authorities of course.

Are planning regulations a new thing? Yes and no. Aside from national regulations, we have conservation areas in towns and cities, and national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty in the countryside, all of which place specific restrictions on the extent and style of building allowed within them. Along with mountains of paperwork to be waded through in order to understand the restrictions or to make an application.

It was much simpler in the 16th and 17th centuries, but by no means a free-for-all. Consider the 1589 ‘Act against the erecting and maintaining cottages’, which stated:

‘ no person shall within this realm … make, build and erect, or cause to be made, built or erected, any manner of cottage for habitation or dwelling, nor convert or ordain any building or housing made or hereafter to be made or used as a cottage for habitation or dwelling, unless the same person do assign and lay to the same cottage or building four acres of ground at the least, to be accounted according to the statute or ordinance De terris mensurandis being his or her own freehold and inheritance lying near to the said cottage, to be continually occupied and manured therewith so long as the same cottage shall be inhabited’

Hmm – 4 acres…and as for the manuring…

But regulations are made to be broken, and illegal building of cottages on common ground was rife. It was however possible, but by no means certain, to obtain retrospective permission, usually by payment of a fine. (The equivalent of a modern-day ‘sweetener’ perhaps?)

Poplar Cottage, Screenshot 2015-02-03 15.08.46 now re-erected in the Weald and Downland museum, but originally sited in West Sussex, is thought to be one such illegal or ‘wasteland’ cottage, the owner of which must at some stage have received a ‘licence to remain’.

As it happens, I wrote a short story called ‘The Price of Poplar ‘ speculating on the means used to gain that permission, which has been published in the anthology ‘Beggar at the Gate and Other Stories (Historical Novel Society)

Is ‘escaping to the country’ a modern concept? Not really – wealthy folk in Tudor London also prized their country estates, enabling them to escape from the city when the weather, or disease, or political difficulties dictated.

The TV show ‘Escape to the Country’ is somewhat different. Not featuring temporary escapes to country estates by the privileged, but folk like me (well, ok, maybe a teensy bit better-off than me) making a permanent move; choosing, not just a beautiful part of the country to live in, but often also a different pace and way of life.

May they all enjoy it!

Postscript: One of my holiday ‘treats’ is to look in estate agency windows and pick up house brochures. Imagine my delight when a property I’d noticed when on holiday in Devon featured as the mystery house in a recent episode – and I got to enjoy a virtual tour…

(A modified version of this article first appeared as a guest post on Helen Hollick’s blog http://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.co.uk)

Charles I and a very small coffin…

It isn’t every day I find an intriguing little snippet, but today was one of those days. This article tells the tale of the finding and opening of Charles I’s coffin- fascinating in itself, especially as it was found in vault considered to contain the coffins of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, though the two coffins in question are not inscribed as such.

Screenshot 2015-01-30 15.37.09

Screenshot 2015-01-30 15.37.46 Screenshot 2015-01-30 15.38.19

Charles I’s though does have an inscription and when opened the facial features relate to portraits of him, and the head was clearly severed, execution-style. So no reason to doubt it’s provenance.

But for me the part that really intrigues is the mention of a small coffin placed on top of Charles’ pall, covered in crimson velvet. A child clearly, but who?

The suggestion that it was a stillborn child of Queen Anne, (Charles I’s mother) while she was a Princess in Denmark seems, in my opinion, preposterous. Screenshot 2015-01-30 15.45.31

1) She required to be a virgin when James VI married her and there has never been any suggestion that she wasn’t.
2) Why would the coffin of a child likely born many years earlier have been kept and re-buried along with Charles I?
3) (Most intriguing of all) Why would this be suggested?

If anyone can shed light on this for me, or point me in the direction of further information I’d be grateful – little snippets like this can be very useful, but they can also be VERY distracting…